In 1993, a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) reported India as the country with the largest population of ‘street children’. The 1991 India Census pegged their number at around 18 million (approximately 1/5th of the world’s street children); most of them being boys from scheduled caste and tribes.
A large part of the population of street children is concentrated in metropolitan cities of India; with factors like migration, urbanization, dismantling of family structure, domestic violence, political unrest, rapid economic growth, child abuse and most importantly poverty playing a role in children moving from their homes in the first place.
Urbanization and modernization bring prosperity for some and depravity for others. One of the worst-hit sections of the society is street children. The term is used in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe while Western Europe and North America usually refer to these children as ‘homeless children’. The terms may vary in developed and developing countries but unfortunately, the phenomenon seems to be prevalent everywhere. United Nations Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF) further dissects the definition as it classifies it into three distinct categories –‘children on the streets’, ‘children of the streets’ and ‘abandoned children’.
UNICEF also defines them as children for whom the street has become a source of livelihood; and those who do not have any reliable adult supervision and protection. Given that the circumstances, cultural factors, societal factors and socio-economic factors are different from one region to another, yet the definition remains dynamic. Through this piece, I attempt to use a broad and an all-inclusive definition of the term ‘street children’.
Poverty is one of the leading causes for children fending for themselves on streets, especially in India. In addition, there are added causes like abuse by parents or step-parents, death of both the parents and lack of opportunities in rural areas. These factors can be broadly categorized under two criteria – ‘pull factors’ and ‘push factors’. The former includes improved job opportunities, entertainment, glamour, and higher income; while latter includes lack of economic opportunity, rural under-development, abuse or violence at home or death of both the parents.
Several studies conducted suggest that street-children may not have a family, and yet they have a very strong connection with their peers i.e., other street children. Often these children rely on their friends than on their families or other adults in the society
Abuse is supposed to be highly common among adolescent street children, there is an overlap between substance, sexual and physical abuse. A study conducted on the street children of Varanasi, reports that there are three things that are most important to them – food, addiction, and entertainment. Substance abuse is pervasive in this section; it often helps them deal with ongoing mental, physical and emotional abuse at a young age.
Another research conducted on adolescent street children reported that peer pressure (62.1%), experimentation (36.3%) and self-confidence (28.7%) are the primary reasons of substance abuse. Violence and abuse is common in the lives of these children, as they make for easy targets. Most of the research indicates that police abuse is most frequent followed by abuse by other adults on the streets.
To begin with, we first need to know the approximate number of these children. No pan-India survey has been conducted since 1991 that estimates the (exact figures cannot be calculated) number of street children in the country. Over these two decades, the population of street children would have grown by a huge number. Unless we know the number of children who are on the streets in different cities, no social security scheme or program will be able to address the issue
In my opinion, our approach to street children should not be ‘welfare-based’ but ‘rights-based’. It is essential to understand that it is a fundamental right of these children (like all other children) to be given/provided protection, safe environment, education, and health benefits. It is also referred to as the “three Ps” – Provision, Protection and Participation.
An integrated and comprehensive program (education, health, nutrition and legal help) must be designed to address economic, mental and physical problems that they may have encountered at a regional level. There must be a mechanism in place through which these children are given education and health provisions by keeping their lifestyle in mind; a residential school where all their needs are taken care of, with proper precautions for their safety, could be an option. In addition to that, there must be community awareness drives about economic and political rights; sensitization workshops for the police officials to equip them with better ways to deal with these children.
The diverse nature of this population must also be taken into account as a ‘one size fits all’ approach will not work across all cities. Then there is an added problem of constant mobility within this section of the society, keeping it difficult to track, monitor and evaluate them.
A study conducted on street children talks about preserving the identity of ‘street children’ while trying to include them into the mainstream society. There are several challenges in dealing with this issue at hand, and yet we must begin the process and tackle obstacles as we move ahead. There is, therefore, a need to address this mammoth problem at the earliest.